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Alexei Sobchenko discusses the roots of the crisis in Ukraine

On June 23, 2015, The Institute of World Politics and the Kościuszko Chair of Polish Studies hosted Alexei Sobchenko’s discussion on the origins on the current crisis in Ukraine as part of the Intermarium Series of Lectures. An interpreter and translator for the US Department of State, Mr. Sobchenko has been exposed to the perspectives of multiple individuals in Ukraine.

Mr. Sobchenko began his lecture by reviewing the modern history of Ukraine and its relationship with Russia. He explained that there are two different narratives to Ukraine’s history – one Russian and one Ukrainian. According to the Russian narrative, Ukraine has always been a region of Russia, and its people are basically a Russian sub-ethnic group. The Ukrainian perspective, in turn, presents a long history of oppression and annexation by Russia, and the subsequent efforts by Ukrainians to achieve independence.

Mr. Sobchenko claimed that both narratives are incorrect. Ukraine and Russia have historically had similar languages, religion, and compatible governing structures. The only serious attempt to regain independence, he asserted, was during the transition from the Russian Empire to the USSR, and in 1991, during the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Having described the historical context of Ukraine being part of a greater Russia for centuries, Sobchenko also stressed that there was always a separate identity for Ukrainians. Mr. Sobchenko grew up in the Soviet Union and was ethnic Ukrainian, but lived in Russia for most of his life, as his father moved around with the military. He stressed that he was always regarded as Ukrainian, and the concept of separate ethnic identities was still relevant. Ukrainian was always taught as a separate language in Ukrainian schools, and the Ukrainian USSR operated fully in the Soviet system and was not marginalized. They even had their own branch of the KGB.

The polarizing differences between Ukraine and Russia we see today came following the breakup of the Soviet Union. Sobchenko stated that Ukraine declared independence following the 1991 failed coup, not because of ethno-nationalist movements like those of the Baltic Soviet Republics, but because they felt they would be stronger as an independent state.

Many in Ukraine believed that they “fed” the Soviet Union. The soil there is very suitable for agriculture, and it is true that they produce and export a large amount of wheat. History shows however that they, along with Russia, fell into difficult economic times throughout the 1990s. Mr. Sobchenko explained that this changed in 2000 for Russia but not for Ukraine. Putin came to power, Russia’s oil boom began, and money began flowing into the country. Today, Russia has a much more robust economy compared to Ukraine, and a very different society and government.

Because of these economic hardships and less government benevolence, Ukrainians must work harder for their money, Mr. Sobchenko stated. They hit rock bottom economically but did not benefit from the kind of recovery that Russia eventually experienced. Ukrainians have also shown that they hold their government more accountable. The protests demanding a fair election in 2004, as well as the 2013-2014 Maidan protests which demanded closer relations with the EU, are on a much larger scale and have had a greater impact than any anti-government protests in Russia within the last decade and a half. This, and the lack of an enigmatic ruler such as Putin, are reasons why Ukrainians generally do not like their leadership.

“Ukrainians identify with the nation, but not their government,” said Mr. Sobchenko. In the opinion of many Ukrainians, the ongoing civil war is a distraction to keep the current government in power. They also are not sure who is a suitable replacement for their current corrupt leadership, and many Ukrainians are at a loss as to who should step up in Kyiv.

Mr. Sobchenko finished his presentation by sharing what he believes Russia’s strategy to be. He claims that Putin is waiting for a second Maidan, something that will leave a large power vacuum in Kyiv. Such an event would lead to a full-on intervention within Ukraine, rather than funding a civil war. He also made the claim that Putin’s aggression is all done to keep himself in office, and that if he left the presidency he would be killed by his own people in Russia. Putin, he said, is also calculated in his actions, in that he does a little, sees the reaction, and then acts again if there won’t be resistance. For example, he annexed Crimea without a shot fired, and now is funding a civil war in the Donbas.

Mr. Sobchenko said that the United States should make a move either to help Ukraine, or decide to cut them off completely instead of being somewhere in between. He said that there is an expectation in Ukraine that the United States should help.